Kemi Badenoch has been urged to “walk away” from “worrying” trade negotiations with Gulf states due to concerns about human and labour rights abuses.
The UK has “absolutely no reason” to discuss trade with states where “human, women’s and LGBT rights and workers’ rights abuses are so widespread”, union boss Paul Nowak said.
Amnesty International warned the negotiations, which began in 2022, were “worrying” and Labour stressed they needed to include progress on ethics and environmental standards.
The business and trade secretary will visit the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Saudi Arabia this week for international commerce talks with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Badenoch wants to agree a trade deal with the body – which exchanged a record total of £61.3bn with the UK in 2022 – and also includes the Gulf nations Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman.
But the minister has been criticised by the Trade Union Congress (TUC), human rights charity Amnesty, and Labour’s shadow international trade secretary.
The Department for Business and International Trade (DBIT) told City A.M. that the trade deals “present an enormous opportunity to boost sales of British goods and services” and maintained that “the UK is a leading advocate for human rights”.
‘Do the right thing’
Nowak told City A.M.: “There is absolutely no reason to be entering trade talks with countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, where human rights, women’s and LGBT rights and workers’ rights abuses are so widespread.
“Kemi Badenoch should do the right thing and walk away from negotiations until fundamental rights are respected.”
Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “On the GCC discussions, the UK should advance trade negotiations that work for the UK economy whilst advancing human rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, and environmental protections.
“Yet there is no faith in Conservative negotiators to deliver that.”
And Amnesty’s UK head of policy, Allan Hogarth, warned deals were “currently conducted without adequate scrutiny” and called for Parliament to “be able to properly examine and approve deals before they’re signed off by ministers”.
‘Wilfully ignoring violations’
He continued: “Trade deals should always be aligned with the UK’s wider commitment to protect and promote human rights, so it’s worrying to see reports that human rights issues will not even be considered in these talks.
“A UK-Gulf trade deal which remained silent on these issues would be wilfully ignoring serious human rights violations.”
Badenoch, who will visit the three nations during a five-day tour and also address the Qatar Economic Forum on Tuesday, claims a deal will increase UK-Gulf trade by up to 16 per cent.
Inward investment to the UK is currently worth more than £15.7bn, per government figures.
“The GCC represents an enormous opportunity for UK firms,” the business secretary said. “I know my counterparts are as ambitious for this deal as I am, and I’m ready to match their ambition.”
Thomas-Symonds also criticised Badenoch for a “blatant attempt to look busy… in a slow-burning Conservative leadership election.”
‘Failing on trade’
He added: “The hard truth is that the Conservatives are failing desperately on trade.
“The OBR predicts exports are set to fall by 6.6 per cent this year, equivalent to £51bn hit to the UK, stifling economic growth and costing us good jobs and investment.”
As a whole, the GCC is equivalent to the UK’s seventh largest export market, with demand for goods and services set to reach £1 trillion by 2035, a rise of more than 75 per cent.
While more than half of the UK’s current £36bn exports to the GCC are services, and green tech firms have welcomed closer ties with the region as an “area of significant impact”.
A report by Parliament’s international trade committee last month warned that the UK’s values and obligations must not be compromised by any deal with the Gulf states.
‘How we are seen’
Chairman Angus MacNeil said the government’s approach was about “how we see ourselves as a society, how we are seen around the world, and whether we are willing to put our values on human rights and the environment on the negotiating table”.
The SNP MP added: “We have heard promises in the past that more trade will not come at the expense of human rights.
“But the UK is negotiating a trade deal with a bloc including countries that the government itself has assessed as having particularly concerning human rights issues.”
A House of Lords report on human rights in the Gulf cited a US state department review published last year which found all six GCC countries “listed multiple, significant and credible human rights violations”.
The Department for Business and International Trade (DBIT) told City A.M. “UK-GCC negotiations, launched last year, present an enormous opportunity to boost sales of British goods and services, increase trade and investment by billions of pounds, and contribute £600 million or more to UK workers’ annual wages – putting money in people’s pockets.
“The UK is a leading advocate for human rights. We continue to show global leadership encouraging all states to uphold their international obligations and hold those who abuse human rights to account, including through our independent Global Human rights sanctions regime.”